How the apple took over the planet

New findings pinpoint the true origin of our favorite fruit -- and help explain its extraordinary path to dominance

Topics: History, Food,

How the apple took over the planet (Credit: iStockphoto/jstan2)
This article is excerpted from the new "Apple: A Global History," from University of Chicago Press.

In early September of 1929, Nikolai Vavilov, famed Russian plant explorer and botanist, arrived in the central Asian crossroads of Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. Climbing up the Zailijskei Alatau slopes of the Tian Shan mountains separating Kazakhstan from China, Vavilov found thickets of wild apples stretching in every direction, an extensive forest of fruit coloured russet red, creamy yellow and vibrant pink. Nowhere else in the world do apples grow thickly as a forest or with such incredible diversity. Amazed by what he saw, Vavilov wrote, ‘I could see with my own eyes that I had stumbled upon the centre of origin for the apple.’

With extraordinary prescience and few facts, Vavilov suggested that the wild apples he had seen growing in the Tian Shan were the ancestors of the modern apple. He tracked the whole process of domestication to the mountains near Alma-Ata, where the wild apples looked awfully similar to the apples found at the grocery store. Unfortunately, Vavilov’s theory would remain mostly unknown for decades.

Exactly where the apple came from had long been a matter of contention and discussion among people who study plant origins. Vavilov, imprisoned by Joseph Stalin in 1940 for his work in genetics during the Lysenko Affair, died in a Leningrad prison in 1943. Only after the fall of communism in Russia did Vavilov’s theory, made more than half a century earlier, become widely recognized.

As Vavilov predicted, it’s now known that all of the apples known today are direct descendents of the wild apples that evolved in Kazakhstan. Plants producing apples belong to the genus Malus, which emerged about 12 million years ago in China and consist primarily of small trees and shrubs. A member of the flowering Rosaceae family, apples were among the first flowering plants on earth. The Rosaceae has given rise to many of the fruits that humans commonly eat, including pears, plums, peaches, strawberries and raspberries. Many of these fruits can also be found growing wild in the mountains of the Tian Shan, creating a veritable fruit forest.

Humans passing through the mountains of central Asia helped apples spread east and west. Travellers on the Silk Road, which passed through some of the richest apple forests, packed some of the biggest and tastiest fruits in their saddlebags to snack on as they made their journeys. Animals, too, helped the apple move overland. The apple’s smooth, hard, teardrop-shaped seed has evolved to pass through an animal’s digestive tract perfectly intact. An apple seed in the gut of a horse could be transported as far as 40 miles in a single day. As humans and animals travelled, seeds were dropped, seedlings grew and millions of unique apple types sprang up throughout Asia and Europe.

Much of the subsequent history of the domestic apple depends on the discovery of grafting. Before grafting, people marked out wild trees with good fruit and cut down those with bad-tasting fruits. We don’t know who first discovered grafting but we do know that the Chinese and the Babylonians were both grafting plants more than 3,000 years ago. Each discovered that a slip of wood cut from a desirable tree or plant could be notched into the trunk of another tree or plant. The fruit produced from the wood that grew from that juncture would share the characteristics of its more desirable parent. Cato the Elder first described the grafting process in his “De Agricultura,” written in the second century bce. This knowledge, along with the fresh fruit, travelled on the great long-distance trade networks that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent, so that by the first millennium bce the cultivation and enjoyment of apples was considered essential to civilized life.

Homer’s “Odyssey,” written in the ninth or eighth century bce, contains what many believe to be the first written mention of apples in the ancient world. When Mycenean hero Odysseus seeks refuge in the court of King Alcinous, he finds ‘a large orchard of four acres, where trees hang their greenery on high, the pear and pomegranate, the apple with its glossy burden, the sweet fig and the luxuriant olive.’ While this passage is commonly cited as the first mention of apples, the Greek word melon was used for almost any kind of round fruit that grows on a tree. So the many legendary apples of Greek myth – the one given to Paris by Aphrodite, those thrown by Hippomenes to distract Atalanta or the apples growing in the Hesperides – may have been other kinds of tree fruit or perhaps no particular fruit at all. Later Greek writings drew a distinction between the apple and the quince, which had been growing in the region long before the apple. It’s important to note, though, that Europeans interpreted these classical references to fruit as apples.

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The rise of the Persian empire brought the enjoyment and celebration of fruit to a climax in the ancient world. At its height under Darius, around 512 bce, the empire stretched from the Aegean coast of Turkey across Iran and Afghanistan to India, north to the edge of the Caucasus and into Central Asia, and south to the Middle East and around the Mediterranean coast to Egypt.

When Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 334 bce, he took many things from the Persians, including their appreciation of apples. This admiration soon spread throughout the Greek world. Alexander brought gardeners skilled in grafting from the Tigris basin to Greece to assist in the production of apples. Apples soon appeared on Greek tables, appearing in the final course of cakes and fruits served at grand banquets.

The fruit, knowledge and dining customs of the Greeks and Persians moved west with the rise of the Roman Empire. Unique fruits and improved horticultural skills were eagerly brought back to Rome along the Silk Road trade routes connecting Rome to China. Among the fruits introduced to Rome were sweet cherries, peaches, apricots and oranges. Italy became one vast orchard, so much so that the fruit trees even had their own deity, the goddess Pomona.

Orchards, vineyards and olive groves offered wealthy Romans a quiet refuge from frenetic city life. Gardens provided their owners a little piece of paradise and no garden was complete without apple trees. The Romans had more varieties of apples in cultivation than any other fruit and considered the apple a luxury item. Fruit gardening both encouraged and was encouraged by the custom of outdoor dining. Romans created dining rooms under the sky where diners ate among the fruit trees. According to the Roman poet Horace, the perfect Roman meal began with eggs and ended with fruit, giving rise to the proverbial Latin expression ova ad malum, ‘from the egg to the apple’, the equivalent of today’s English idiom ‘from soup to nuts’.

The Romans almost certainly spread the domestic apple from Europe across the English Channel to Britain. Before the Romans arrived, the inhabitants of Europe and Britain had made good use of their native crab apples, mostly for drinking. These native crab apples were not, however, to the taste of the incoming Romans, who preferred the comforts of home and its perfect, sweet fruits. So they established orchards in Spain, France and Britain that were planted with their favourite apples from home. The tiny Lady apple, which often shows up around Christmastime in Europe, is thought to be one of them. A Roman mosaic at St-Romain-en-Gal in south-eastern France depicts the progress of an apple from grafting through to harvest.

The cultivation and enjoyment of apples, as well as other fresh fruit, remained widespread throughout the duration of the Roman empire. Toward the end of the fourth century, when the empire began to collapse, however, much of the fruit-growing went with it.

With their practical as well as ideological commitment to self-sufficiency, monasteries became repositories of collected cultural and intellectual skills after Rome was overrun. Monastic orders had long been committed to feeding themselves by growing gardens filled with edible plants and fruits. By growing everything within the monastery walls, the monks would never need to go outside. Apples, therefore, followed the abbeys.

Continued Danish and Viking invasions in Britain left apples a low priority on the island until the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Norman invasion changed the legal and social structure of England and brought the island into closer contact with the European mainland. More importantly, however, the Normans brought their enthusiasm for fine cider.

In twelfth-century Europe, the expansion of the Cistercian order of monks, a breakaway group of Benedictines, renewed the cultivation of apples across the continent. The Cistercian monks valued manual labour and the cultivation of abbey lands, and they worked hard to propagate and distribute good varieties of fruit. As Cistercian abbeys spread to Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Portugal and the eastern Mediterranean, orchards went with them. Successful grafts from one orchard were shared with other Cistercian monks around Europe. The effect of all this Cistercian orcharding was to encourage monastic fruit-growing in general.

As Western Europe struggled with invaders after the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe continued to flourish until the seventh and eighth centuries ce, when it, too, was overrun. The invaders this time were the newly emergent followers of Islam, but unlike those in the West, these conquerors had received strict orders to preserve crops and orchards. With the restoration of peace, the horticultural skills of Byzantium and Persia became part of Islamic life. The Muslim world encouraged scholarship, gardening and fruit-growing. Muslim scholars translated and updated botanical works from Greece and Rome. New kinds of fruit and new varieties were introduced and acclimatized. Moorish Spain, in particular, became a centre of horticultural expertise and the sultan established sophisticated gardens at Toledo and Seville. Among the crops acclimatized to the Iberian Peninsula by the tenth century were rice, sorghum, sugar-cane, cotton, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, pomegranates, watermelons, spinach, artichokes and aubergines (eggplants). Islam not only preserved the fruit-growing wisdom of the classical world, but expanded and improved it.

By the thirteenth century, apples were again grown with increasing frequency throughout Europe. The number of named apple varieties soared as cultivating the best and most beautiful apples became a mark of wealth and culture, as it had been in Rome and Persia before. Apples became an essential part of daily life, so much so that explorers and colonists could not bear to leave home without a favorite variety. Seeds from these apples travelled to almost every corner of the globe.

The colonists who left Europe in growing numbers throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries planted apples all along the eastern seaboard of North America. Some of the earliest colonists tried growing some of their grafted Old World apple trees, but most did not fare well in their new environment. These colonists also planted seeds and took them west to establish orchards in the Midwest, and on the Pacific coast by the late nineteenth century.

Apples also proliferated in South America, planted by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and colonists. Apples became so common and vigorous that by the time Charles Darwin landed in Chile in 1835, he found apple trees growing all along the coast, virtually obscuring the Chilean port of Valdivia.

Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck, founder of the Netherlands East India Company trading post at Cape Town, took apples to South Africa in 1654. Riebeeck made fruit-growing a requirement among settlers so they could both feed themselves and supply trading boats heading east. Apples remained a minor agricultural industry until the late nineteenth century, when an infestation of the root louse known as phylloxera destroyed the Cape’s grape vineyards. Cecil Rhodes, founder of the British state of South Africa, turned to apples as an alternative. Rhodes purchased several farms in the 1890s, many of them bankrupt vineyards, and combined them under the name Rhodes Fruit Farms to prove that fruit could grow well and profitably in South Africa. Working closely with California fruit-growers, Rhodes helped to build the fruit industry that flourishes there today.

Australia got its first apples when Captain Arthur Phillip established the English settlement of Port Jackson (today’s Sydney) in 1788. How many of these apples survived that original planting is not known. That same year, the infamous Captain Bligh anchored his ship, the Bounty, off the coast of Tasmania. The ship’s botanist planted three apple seedlings and several apple and pear seeds, laying the foundations for the island’s later moniker as the ‘Apple Isle’. As settlement in Australia and New Zealand took off, so too did its orchards, so much so that the fruit-growing area around Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, became known as the ‘Apple Bowl’. The seasonal opposition of the southern and northern hemispheres helped the apple industries in Australia and New Zealand to boom, allowing them to supply fruit to apple-loving Americans, Canadians and Europeans in the winter months.

Over thousands of years, apples have followed the westward course of empire, traveling from Central Asia to the ancient world to Europe, and then on to the Americas with the explorers and colonists. In an 1862 essay in praise of wild apples, Henry David Thoreau wrote that the apple ‘emulates man’s independence and enterprise. It is not simply carried … but, like him, to some extent, it has migrated to this New World, and is even, here and there, making is way amid the aboriginal trees.’ Along the way, the apple has accumulated a vast store of genes that has allowed it to thrive nearly everywhere in the temperate world.

Excerpted with permission from “Apple: A Global History,” The University of Chicago Press.

Erika Janik lives in Madison, Wis., and works as a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.

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